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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Top Secret Files Tell Story of Expulsion

MTVladimir Makarov holding Nikolai Berdyayev's declassified file from the FSB archives.
The worn folders are labeled "Top Secret" and bear the insignia of the Soviet secret police -- VChK, GPU, NKVD, KGB.

Inside, in faded ink on yellow paper, the now declassified files from the archives of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, have much to tell about a milestone in the establishment of totalitarianism in Russia -- the 1922 expulsion of non-Communist intellectuals.

The documents reflect the story of dozens of Russian philosophers and other leading intellectuals who were arrested in August 1922 and left Russia in September and November of that year on two German boats collectively known as the "philosophers' ship."

As part of the 80th anniversary of those events, and in an attempt to distance today's secret service from its repressive past, the FSB has been publishing its research on the deportation and showing some files to the media -- including the first public disclosure of the number of people arrested and expelled.

Inside the files, the signatures of Russia's best known philosophers -- Nikolai Berdyayev, Nicholas Lossky, Fyodor Stepun -- and many other leading thinkers of the early 20th century can be seen next to that of Bolshevik secret police deputy Iosif Unschlicht, who oversaw the operation ordered by Lenin and the Politburo.

"These are people here, people! Behind these signatures is our history!" said Vladimir Makarov, an employee of the FSB archive who researched the files and showed them to The Moscow Times.

Makarov, who taught philosophy at a military college before joining the archive, has prepared a publication on Stepun's case for the October issue of the Voprosy Filosofii journal, which will be entirely dedicated to the deportation.

"The Central Archive of the FSB often acts as either the initiator or one of the leading contributors of documentary publications on various historical subjects," the FSB said in a written response to questions. This time, the reply said, "We took into account that the issue of the relationship between intellectuals and the authorities has not lost its relevance today, and not only in our country, but around the world."

The FSB denied last month's report in the Izvestia newspaper that only two case files -- those of People's Socialist Party leader Alexei Peshekhonov and journalist Viktor Iretsky -- have been declassified. Most documents pertaining to the deportation were declassified in the early 1990s, the agency said, while personal dossiers were opened up five years ago, after the expiration of the 75-year term established for such files by the law on state secrets.

Although a great deal of historical research on the deportation has been published in the past decade, most of it relied on emigres' memoirs, which differed in their estimates of how many people were expelled.

The FSB said the discrepancies arose because not all those who were arrested were sent abroad.

For example, many doctors were sent instead to the country's southern and eastern hinterlands to do battle with epidemics there. Others were freed on the basis of requests from the organizations where they worked.

In total, officials said, the three detention lists approved by the Politburo for Moscow, Petrograd and Ukraine, included 228 people, 32 of whom were students.

In Moscow, 100 people were to be arrested, but only 75 writers and academics were in fact put behind bars. Of those, 57 -- including Berdyayev, Lossky and astronomer Vsevolod Stratonov -- agreed to leave Russia at their own expense and departed in September and November on two ships from Petrograd to Stettin, Germany. Eighteen more, most of them students, were deported under guard.

Makarov said that in the course of his research he discovered a lesser-known fact: that some intellectuals were expelled as late as 1923 by train to the Latvian capital Riga and by steamboat from Odessa to Constantinople.

Stepun's 20-page case is typical for deportees, Makarov said. It begins with a search and arrest warrant issued in mid-August. But the philosopher was not at home when officers arrived, and the file contains testimonies by his neighbors and an obligation by the dvornik, or janitor, to inform Stepun that he was being summoned to the GPU. When he was finally questioned on Sept. 30, Stepun described Bolshevism as a "very complicated religious and moral illness of Russian people's soul, which, however, will undoubtedly be useful for its spiritual development."

The investigator handling the case concluded that Stepun must be expelled "in order to stop [his] malicious anti-Soviet activity."

The last page of the file is much newer. It is a certificate of rehabilitation from the Prosecutor General's Office dated July 4, 2000.

"There is no proof of his guilt in committing a crime in the case," prosecutors concluded.

"No investigation was conducted other than questioning Stepun about his political views."

New-York based Russian poet Oleg Ilyinsky recalls listening to Stepun's lectures in Munich University and in private homes from 1947 to 1956. The lectures were equally brilliant in Russian and German, Ilyinsky said in a telephone interview.

"Through him, I and many others received a tremendous wealth of historical and philosophical culture," he said. "His artistic talent was no less than his philosophical knowledge. It impressed students profoundly."

Makarov pointed to several features that the deportation cases have in common.

They lack original reports from GPU informers, thus testifying to the fact that all arrests were carried out on the basis of prepared lists.

Most of the documents are written in different handwriting to that of the accused intellectuals, who only signed their names -- more evidence of a well-prepared operation, when even procedural papers were prepared in advance.

The aim of the operation, Makarov said, was "to clean up the ideological playing field."

"And they [the Bolsheviks] managed to do it very successfully," he said. As a student and, later, associate professor of philosophy, Makarov added, he personally suffered from the protracted period when the writings of Berdyaev, Lossky, Stepun and others were off-limits to Russians.

"It took me a long time to painfully figure out many things myself," Makarov said.